It rains. Not a soft pitter-patter that makes grass bend or that hits the inside of an empty metal pail—but a downpour that drowns out Nic’s snoring. The space between you two, sometimes fiery, sometimes freezing, always empty, could fit another person. You sneak your arm out from under the covers and trail your hand along the floor, scooping your tank top up. The bed doesn’t squeak when you untangle yourself from the covers and throw your legs over the side. Benriya money pays, after all. With as many odd, questionable jobs they take, they’d better be able to afford a good bed. Or two when Nic isn’t watching his strength.
Your wrinkled tank top doesn’t unwrinkle no matter how many times you tug it down. Whatever, you’re not dressing to impress right now, anyway, so who cares if it’s wrinkly. Now, if you showed up to Bastard like this, that’d be another story, but your meeting isn’t until later. You pick your underwear up off the floor, tags clinking when you put one leg through. Puddled close by, you grab your sweatpants, too.
Nic stirs. His hand brushes the katana next to his side of the bed even in his sleep. His side? His side? You look back at “your side” and see a fresh indent from your body, but you’d be lying if you said that indent is rarely there. It could be your side. It was before. Don’t you want it back? You could do cute domestic things, then. Like stick around for breakfast or feel emotionally at arm’s length.
Opening the door, you peek out—great, Worick must be sleeping still—and close it behind you. When it closes, it blocks of everything Nic. You could cuddle up to him. You could kiss him on the cheek. You could run your thumb over his knuckles. But you’d be ignoring the writing on the walls; the writing on his door and above his bed. A single scrawled name. Veronica: an untouched relic in the Benriya place of operations, a wave of silence plundering Worick’s voice, a rigidness in Nic’s back. Veronica, the name that sleeps between you and Nic.
Why are you back? Why come back to the person whose body you know but not his history? Why risk it?
The Celebrer on the counter is as good a distraction as any. The stove clock reads 7:03 a.m. in dull green, and you head over and pick up the pill bottle. You dip your head back and swallow a few. If you’re not careful, Ergastulum will break you again.
Vibrating, your phone lights up on the counter with one name popping up, Loretta.
Your apartment floor chills your feet. No dust on the old calendar hanging up, none of the doors creak (not even your pesky front door), and the vase the Christianos gifted you during your third anniversary together is clear, polished. Red carnations stand in the vase, petals tipping over the edges. Maybe you would’ve noticed them if you were here for more than an hour or two yesterday. The Christianos know their way around reds. Cute. Loretta must’ve set this up when she got the call from you. Showing their gratitude toward a top Celebrer supplier must be another specialty.
You grab the tiny suitcase you haven’t unpacked and wheel it across the floor to your bedroom. Innocuous things, the counter, the sofa, your bedroom door in front of you, remind you of him, and they overstimulate you with memories and make you taste a sweetness in your mouth that Ergastulum wants to crush. It makes the next wave, bitter and long, worse.
The why question pokes at you again.
Why come back?
Ergastulum would (and will) rot away with or without you. Why come back to the city you clawed your way out of? The anti-Twilights fester in every city, whether the police of said city care to admit it or not, so why, why come back to a place where hate and inhumanity breed together in every crack of every building?
The answer to that comes packaged with a katana. The answer to that comes packaged with a conversation you need to have. Part of you wants to pass off coming back as returning several favors to the Christianos.
Heaving the suitcase on top of your bed, you start unzipping it when two heavy rasps knock against your front door. Your eyebrows furrow. The Christianos, as well-mannered compared to the other families, wouldn’t spend more time on you than a few meetings or occasional checkup (or in this case, someone to swing by your apartment every now and then). They’re a business. So, who, then?
Almost tiptoeing, you avoid anything too loud. Your initials are engraved on the knife in your hand. If someone’s here to kidnap your ass, they’re getting the shit kicked out of them, no compromises.
You open the door. His hair may be longer than before, but the black eyepatch and smirk he sends to you ring a symphony of bells in your head.
“Worick?” Your grip on the knife loosens.
He eyes the knife and puts his hands up. A teasing grin paints itself between his cheeks. He hums. “How scary, and here I was sure you’d have mellowed out a little by now.”
“Force of habit. Remember the tiny little thing? How I was kidnapped before? Besides, it’s not like I’ve been gone ten years.” You put the knife up and cross your arms.
“Ah.” He pauses and looks awkward for once. “That.”
“Why are you here, Worick?”
“So impatient. And here I was going to generously invite you out for drinks tonight.”
“You’re already thinking about exploiting me and haven’t let me in yet.” He sighs. “How cruel.”
Opening the door, you step aside for him, and he comes in with the grin reattached to his face, as though the grin bandages his vulnerability.
Worick came to you under this guise. He’s skirting around, not getting to any major topics, and not to mention he came alone. You have something he wants, the look on his face and still silence tells you enough for a fair assumption.
“It’s Nic,” you say.
He pulls out a cigarette. “You wouldn’t happen to have a light on you, would you?”
You smother down wanting to pull the truth, a letter at a time if you have to, from his mouth like teeth. Instead, you pull a light out from your pocket. “You know the rules.”
“Balcony, I remember.”
The balcony doors creak when you open them, and biting wind makes itself at home on the balcony. Worick puts his elbow on the railing. You light his cigarette.
“It hasn’t been the same without you,” he says. He looks at the tops of buildings, at lights, at people walking, but never at you.
You miss the nights out, the stupid games all three of you’d play early into the morning and falling asleep there. Sometimes, Nic would pat your head, or if you were alone together in glowing twilight hours, he ran his fingers through your hair. His touch, deep and soothing, became addictive, but his silence took your sprinting heart and held it with icy fingers; not silence from a lack of speaking, but silence as in this is off limits. You would wake up to his face and never know his history. The no-go zone.
“Well.” You prop your elbow up on the railing and cradle your chin with your hand. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
He barks out a laugh. “Or the pants tighter.”
The silence and off limits parts are bad enough, but the man—he’s—fuck. He makes a headache easy. Ergastulum divided you in less than two days, split three ways down the middle. Your arm for the Christianos, your heart for Nic, and your throat for yourself, because the all the words out of your mouth string around your neck like fishing wire. Have you changed in the three years you’ve been gone? Ergastulum brought you right back to the same place.
You give him the look. He stops dead in his tracks, and he gives you whiplash while he’s at it, changing between playful and serious Worick in seconds. Did he come here for that? To dance around the heavy topics and let you do all the realizing? Can’t betray Nic’s secrets, can he?
“So,” he says, “about the drinks.”
Old wounds itch. You came here for a conversation with Nic, but the fear dialed up, electrocuting your nervous system, makes you second guess yourself. Why are you afraid?
Because if you tread on those no-go zones, losing him would be quick. A glass cut on your skin. Impersonal. Clinical. Distant.
“I’ll think about it.”
He smiles. This one makes him look younger. “Gotcha. Anything else you need? Maybe a tour of the city?”
“Get out of my house, Worick.”
“Aye, aye, cap’n.”
A diva sings in Bastard’s lounge, her voice gliding on the staccato piano and plucky bass. The lush purple carpet matches Galahad’s undershirt.
“Yo!” he says. His lip ring bends with his grin, and he hold a hand up to wave you over. “Looking good.”
“You’re lucky Loretta isn’t here to kick you for that.”
Gal leads you through the lounge to the back. You pass by windows with a view of the street and nearby buildings, but when you catch two figures from another building staring at you both, you catch Gal looking, too.
“Cops haven’t stopped watching this place, have they, Gal?”
He scratches his head and sighs. “They’re watching more now. They have people posted there all the time.”
The nice windows and purple carpet are replaced by brick and visible concrete when he leads you to the back rooms. Your feet hitting the concrete, familiar and easy to adjust to, takes most of the stress from your shoulders. You shrug and stuff your hands in your pockets.
“Let them watch. They haven’t found anything before, and they won’t find anything later. You’re all good at your jobs, Gal.”
He raises an eyebrow, then a second later another grin carves itself on his face. “High praise, but if you want to make a difference, you could take our online survey for 10% off—”
“What, write a review of a brothel and bar?”
“The best brothel and bar in Ergastulum. Looks like someone hasn’t been keeping up. It isn’t like you to fall behind.”
You get to Loretta’s office door, steel all the way through. Gal curls his fingers around the doorknob.
“Fine,” you say. “I’ll write the review when I get back home.”
He pulls it open. “We thank you for your time.”
Loretta sits behind her desk in a black chair too big for her. She stands up when you walk in and reaches her hand out for a shake.
You shake her hand and sit down opposed from her. Gal stands by the door, arms crossed over his chest. No Marco in sight. Maybe he’s out with Connie today?
“Let’s save the pleasantries for later. Tell me about your Celebrer supply.” She folds her hands together. The spunky pep in her voice is replaced by bluntness.
Gal shuts the door. That’s fine, business as usual, but though her office is large, the confinement squeezes at your nervousness, at your paranoia. You breath. Trust them. The Christianos wouldn’t fuck you over. If you can handle a simple deal, you can handle a conversation with Nic. Maybe buy him something nice with the money from this.
“Sure thing. I’m bringing the supply through the border and funneling it into my old storage container. Same exact one. No numbers, no cops watching it.”
“We’re running low on our current supply, and more Twilights have been nervous about the anti-Twilights being active again. Our Celebrer gives them stability they don’t have otherwise.”
Us. Us, you want to say. “Them” sounds far when you’re right here, a Twilight. The word “us” burns your tongue. When you think about it, it’s ridiculous you have to take Celebrer to live, to keep your bodies functioning only to be scorned by Normals or (you breathe and it fills your lungs) to be hunted by Hunters, if you were that unlucky. They haven’t been seen in years, but the possibility exists. And because of what, the stupid tags around your neck? You already have a short lifespan and they’re bent on cutting it in half.
A short lifespan.
Twilights live until their 30s.
Nic is 34.
The sharp intake of breath cuts your cheeks up. And the crushing weight on your lungs and shoulders is back. Loretta, if she notices, doesn’t say anything. She watches your reaction. You bite the inside of your cheek. With your luck and his lifestyle, that dumbass will get himself killed before he’s 39. You don’t have much time left to spend with him. Maybe a couple years if you’re semi lucky. Hurry. Fix it.
“My supply is in.” You look at the clock to double check.
She puts half of the cash from your deal on her desk, and the faces on the bills are as “old guy” as possible. It’s a thick stack, bound by a rubber band.
Digging your hand in your pocket, you feel around for the key. You put it on her desk, silver and unsuspecting. The last key for the last lock on your container was a dull gold. This silver one looks better.
“We’ll give you the rest of the money after we confirm your supply.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Cristiano Amodio.”
You knock on the Benriya door. Once, twice, three times. Cool evening wind settles in.
The door opens, but behind it, a woman in a white dress stands, eyes somewhat wide. She opens her mouth, and her lips curl around the word hello.
But you don’t hear it. A woman. An unfamiliar woman. An unfamiliar woman in a white dress with her strap falling down. Did Nic move on? Are they together? Are you too late to have the conversation you need to have with him? Was everything—the sharp breaths of fear, the re-realization of your short lifespans—for nothing? Should you leave now? She’ll just think some weirdo knocked on their door and left. Doesn’t have to turn into anything big. You can leave them alone and let them be happy. Whatever it is couples do—
Nic passes by in the background. He looks at you. He doesn’t say anything, but he tells you to come in with a tilt of his chin up.
You snap back to reality.
“Thanks,” you say to her. “I’m here to see him.”
She moves aside with a quiet, wondering oh falling from her lips.
Now that you’re paying attention (and not hazy like before), they’ve touched up the place a little, so it’s less of a bachelor's pad and more of a business. You walk straight to Nic while he gets a few beers from the fridge, glass bottles with classic caps.
He turns to you. The necks of the beer bottles are wedged between his fingers.
“Hey, we need to talk, Nic.”
He nods and tilts his head toward his room. Then, he leaves the beer on the counter.
When you walk together, you’re both close and far apart. Your arms touch every once in a while, but his arm around your waist like he used to, secure and soothing, draws you in, further, further until the emotions swelling your heart tide over. And you’re left alone with him in his room. His silent room in which your insides (uncertainty, fear, nervousness, hope) lock together and frenzy, but everything outside of you, everything here, hushes with silence.
“I—” you say.
You don’t like the tremble in your voice. The shakiness. The fragileness. So you regroup and figure out how to attack this the right way.
“I’m sorry for leaving like that. Suddenly.”
He snorts, unamused, and signs, Doesn’t matter. Why’d you leave?
If he’s willing to have this conversation, you need to meet him halfway. You steady your hands, dust off the sign language you remember, and sign, I was scared.
He furrows his eyebrows. He points at you. You were safe.
Not like that—your hands still—but I was scared of the distance between us. I felt like there were some parts of you I’d never get to know. Big parts.
He looks like he’s mulling your concerns over. Deliberate, weighted, he signs slower before stopping. Instead of telling you, he shows you. He steps forward, closer to you, that way a centimeter or two keep you apart.
Close. Close. Close. He’s close.
“And I get it,” you say, “I don’t have to know every single thing about you, but being more open would be better for us. I mean. If you want to.”
He tugs you in a hug, harsh, but you welcome it.
“Shut up,” he says.
You tell him you love him when you kiss him.
“I missed you, Nicolas. A lot.”
He squeezes your ass.
You laugh. “Yeah, I missed that too, you dick.”